Napoleon: Reimagining Fine Art with VFX for Ridley Scott’s Historical Epic


Napoleon: Reimagining Fine Art with VFX for Ridley Scott’s Historical Epic

6 March 2024

Outpost VFX Supervisor Richard Clegg discusses how Ridley Scott drew inspiration from a 19th century painting for his latest feature film, Napoleon

Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated return to the historical epic genre sees him take on the complex character of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix). With a particular emphasis on his influential, and at times, volatile, relationship with wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), Scott explores Napoleon’s quick and merciless rise to power from Major-General to Emperor.

The narrative follows Napoleon across a number of his infamous battles and military expeditions, including the campaign in which Napoleon and his army cross the Egyptian desert, reaching the Great Pyramids of Giza leading ultimately to the Battle of the Pyramids.

Part of Outpost VFX’s work on Scott’s latest feature would take place in the Egyptian desert and would involve breathing life into an iconic historical piece of art, Bonaparte Before the Sphinx – an oil on canvas painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme from 1886. “Ridley really liked the painting and thought it would be a really nice composition to work into the film,” Outpost VFX Supervisor Richard Clegg explains. 

Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1886 painting: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx

This isn’t the first time that Scott has been influenced by Jean-Léon Gérôme’s work. In the book Gladiator: The Making of the Ridley Scott Epic, Scott says that Gérôme’s Pollice Verso – a painting depicting the Roman Empire “in all its wickedness and glory” – played a part in his decision to direct Gladiator in 2000, another historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix.

“The aim wasn’t to copy Bonaparte Before the Sphinx like for like, but we used it as inspiration and a reference for certain points,” Clegg continues.

Plates shot on location in Malta

Taking a number of plates that were shot in Morocco and Malta, the team set about creating an environment that was similar to the environment within Gérôme’s painting.

“We used the plates for the immediate foreground with Napoleon and his horse,” Clegg explains. “Then we started to look at the other elements in the painting; the precipice Napoleon is stood on, the Great Sphinx of Giza and the drop in front of it, the mountains and his army in the background. That’s where we started in terms of blocking things out.”

“The client shot a lot of elements for the dunes and the background mountains, all sorts of geology that they liked and wanted to include, so we used those as the ingredients and then created a digital environment where we could quickly move things around to get nice 3D real-world proportions and representation,” Clegg recalls.

“We went through and started to work up some of the areas,” Clegg continues. “For the background we used some plates that the client shot for the sky and the mountain ranges, and for the foreground we stitched a few things together from the various plates, blending them with the primary plate of Napoleon on his horse.”

Ridley Scott's Napoleon 2023

When it came to the Sphinx, the team used Gérôme’s painting as reference for the damage at the time: “The Sphinx has since been restored, so we used the painting as a reference for how much destruction was present at the time. We went through and utilised various images of the Sphinx in similar lighting conditions as a guide, and then looked at the painting for the more detailed elements of its face,” Clegg explains.

“We also used the painting as a rough guide for some of the smaller details in the environment too: the same kind of rock distribution, white patches on the stone of the Sphinx, the dirt level,” he continues.

The team were conscious to not recreate the painting entirely, creating something that worked in real-world scale: “The painting isn’t an accurate 1:1 representation, and so we had to fit Napoleon, the Sphinx and the army into this landscape within the aspect ratio of the film and make that look nice,” Clegg explains. “Another conscious disparity between the painting and our shot is that the photography is warmer as we wanted it to be more like an oppressive desert landscape, while the painting environment is a more colourful palette.”

Another element that Outpost undertook was the CG crowd in the background that consisted of Napoleon’s army, horses and carts carrying cannons. “The crowd was meant to feel imposing, like Napoleon’s commanding a big army,” Clegg remarks. “There was some kind of military formation structure, but at the same time they’ve been travelling in the desert for weeks, maybe months at this point and so we wanted there to be a little bit of chaos there.

“We used clips of the soldiers and horses that had been captured on set which we then used and built into formations which were handled with a crowd solver. Then we added a bit of FX for some dust coming up as they’re kicking it up and from the carts that were carrying the cannons.”

Of the entire process, Clegg and the team were extremely happy with the creative process: “Working with Charley [Henley, overall VFX Supervisor] is always a pleasure. He’s a great VFX Supervisor to work with and has a close relationship with Ridley, so the creative feedback process was very straightforward and we hope to work with them both again.”

Learn more about Outpost's work on Napleon here.

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